The normally staid scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sounded positively star-struck this week as they awaited release of a new movie in which it’s up to them to save the world from a killer outbreak.
Tickets to a special Thursday screening of “Contagion,” the just-released Steven Soderbergh film about a deadly pandemic virus, had to be doled out via lottery to eager CDC staffers, who already had acted as extras and hobnobbed with actors during filming.
Even Dr. Ali Khan, a rear admiral and assistant surgeon general who leads the CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, admitted to a bit of Hollywood awe.
“I had fun chatting with Kate Winslet. I drew an epi curve for her,” he said, referring to the graphic representation of infection cases used to track an epidemic.
Winslet plays a CDC researcher in the movie. The film's team caused a buzz at the agency's Atlanta offices starting about two years ago, when the crew sought technical advice and filming locations to add authenticity to the movie, said Dave Daigle, an associate director for communications with the CDC's preparedness office.
During the course of the filming, staffers decided that Winslet’s real-life counterpart would likely be Dr. Anne Schuchat, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases who served frequently as the agency’s spokeswoman during the 2009 swine flu pandemic.
Fictional-but-plausible deadly virus
But on the eve of the film’s nationwide release, CDC curiosity had reached a fever pitch, particularly about the source of the fictional-but-plausible deadly virus that quickly circles the globe.
“We were wondering and discussing what the disease might be and rumors are flying about,” Daigle said. “If anyone knows, they have been sworn to secrecy. Most of us think it will not be a pandemic flu, or if it is, it will be mutated.”
Reviews of the movie depict the scourge as a previously unknown virus that leaps from bats to pigs to people. In interviews, Dr. Ian W. Lipkin, the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health infectious disease expert who served as the movie’s technical adviser, said he suggested that the bug be modeled after Nipah virus, a fatal South Asian infection that has been known to migrate from animals to people.
That makes scientific sense to Khan, who says he views television shows and movies about outbreaks with a critical eye.
“Usually, for these movies, I play a guessing game: What’s the animal reservoir?” Khan said, referring to the species that might first host a fatal virus. “I didn’t think it was going to be birds. If something bad is going to come for us, it’s going to come from a bat.”
Khan says he looks to see whether movie-makers get the science right, but he also checks for what he calls “the silly factor.”
“Does the CDC have a good-looking van with an electron microscope mounted inside? Do we have a CDC helicopter? Do we have the black suburbans?” he said. “Is CDC going to call in an air strike?”
The answer, most often, is no — although some CDC movie fantasies have come true. In the 1995 film “Outbreak,” which starred Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo, the CDC’s fictional disaster center was way more posh than anything that existed at the time. Sixteen years later, the agency now boasts an impressive command center of its own.
Khan said he expects “Contagion” to do a thoughtful job of portraying CDC staffers and the work they do. He appreciates the attention, particularly in an era of declining federal budgets and growing threats from problems most Americans never consider.
“I enjoy the fact that CDC is increasingly shown as the good guys,” Khan said. “It reminds people that not only are we at risk of a novel pandemic, but also that CDC protects them from routine threats every day."